My question—that which at the age of fifty brought me to the verge of suicide—was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man . . . a question without an answer to which one cannot live, as I had found by experience. It was: ‘What will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow? What will come of my whole life? . . . Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?'Leo Tolstoy1
The great Russian author Leo Tolstoy had it all: wealth, family, success, and fame. By almost anyone’s standards, Tolstoy should have also possessed a great sense of joy, accomplishment, and purpose. But he did not.
One thing haunted everything he did: death. “Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?” he asked. Tolstoy could not shake the feeling that the finality of his inevitable death made everything in life meaningless.
Restless in the Midst of Prosperity
Tolstoy wasn’t—and still isn’t—alone in this sentiment. For example, the United States is currently perhaps the most advanced, affluent, and comfortable culture in all of human history, but at the same time it is arguably the most depressed, medicated, and directionless culture in all of human history.
One French author recognized this over a hundred years ago. Visiting America for the first time, Alexis de Tocqueville observed what is even more apparent today: “There is something surprising in this strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of abundance . . . Besides the good things that he possesses, he every instant fancies a thousand others that death will prevent him from trying if he does not try them soon. This thought fills him with anxiety, fear, and regret and keeps his mind in ceaseless trepidation.”2
Tolstoy, de Tocqueville, and millions of people today recognize the same agonizing question: Is there any meaning or purpose in life that death does not erase?
Meaningless . . .
Surprisingly, one of the most intriguing—and often overlooked—books of the Bible tackles this same inquiry. The book of Ecclesiastes answers the above question with a resounding no: “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’”3
This isn’t something most people expect to find in the Bible, but there it is. The rest of the book continues to make the case that there is actually no meaning in “all the things that are done under the sun.”4 Wisdom and knowledge are meaningless, wealth is meaningless, pleasure is meaningless. Life is meaningless. “All of it is meaningless.”5
The Bible is on to something here. Imagine you were on death row and your execution was tomorrow. There is nothing you could do today that would change what is going to happen tomorrow. Thus, there is nothing you could do that will not be gone tomorrow. Death will end it all.
That is the Bible’s point. If this life is all that there is—if death is the end and there is nothing after—then there cannot be any real meaning or purpose in life. Death destroys it all. Life is lived in vain because nothing you can do will prevent death’s ultimate victory.
. . . Except
But Ecclesiastes doesn’t stop there. There is one small yet hugely significant detail that is vital to the statements made in Ecclesiastes: apart from God, life cannot have any purpose.
Let me explain a bit.
According to the prevailing scientific worldview today, you are just a chance composition of random atoms. You are an accidental result of a mindless, purposeless biological process.
However, the book of Ecclesiastes—and Christianity as a whole—offers a bilateral perspective: though life apart from God is utterly devoid of meaning, life with God is brimming over with purpose.
God created mankind, and he created us for a specific purpose. However, we rejected that purpose (remember the story of Adam and Eve?) and have since gone to great lengths to try to create our own purpose and meaning.6
Author C. S. Lewis put it this way:
All that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—is the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy. . . . The reason why it can never succeed is this. God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other.7
Your life can have great purpose. Your life can have eternal purpose.
As the creator of this life, God knows what is best for man. He knows the only thing that can give life true meaning is God himself. Christians believe that God, through Jesus Christ, offers us all eternal life—life beyond this world, where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”8
Look Around You
Just look around you. Look at Hollywood. The most beautiful, wealthy, and successful people in the world are so often plagued by depression, drug addiction, eating disorders, and countless other destructive problems.
History has proven over and over that money, sex, possessions, and fame simply don’t provide the fulfillment we desire. Time and time again people have learned that these things offer no real, lasting purpose.
In the Christian understanding, life can have great purpose, but—as much as we may resist it—that purpose is found only through a relationship with God.
- Leo Tolstoy, A Confession, chapter 5. Accessed at The Literature Network, http://www.online-literature.com/tolstoy/a-confession/5/, March 12, 2013.
- Alexis de Tocqueville, “Why the Americans Appear so Restless Amid Their Well-Being,” Democracy in America, http://classiques.uqac.ca/classiques/De_tocqueville_alexis/democracy_in_america_historical_critical_ed/democracy_in_america_vol_2.pdf.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Ecclesiastes 1:2.
- Ibid., Ecclesiastes 1:14. “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
- Ibid., 2:17. In fact, the word “meaningless” occurs about thirty-five times in Ecclesiastes. This term appears only once elsewhere in the Bible—in Job 27:12.
- See The Holy Bible, Genesis 1:26–3:24.
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 49–50.
- The Holy Bible, Revelation 21:4.
- Photo Credit: Ryan Jorgensen - Jorgo / Shutterstock.com.